Monday, June 14, 2021

Hello, Newmal

 I love coining new terms. Sometimes they are just dumb old puns and sometimes they are a tad more clever. I gather a group of pastors every Thursday and I call it the “Synagaggle,” which would literally mean “a gaggling together” if the Oxford English Dictionary would pay attention to me and grant it some legitimacy. Still, I think it is one of my better attempts at moving the English language along in a helpful way. So, You’re welcome. 


Now, I have another term: “Newmal.” It’s not “normal” as in “getting back to normal” because that kind of retrogression isn’t always automatically a positive step. It’s not “new” because we often seem to imagine that anything “new” is likewise “improved” and that’s not always the case either. And it’s not the “new normal” which is a term that we optimistically imply will arise when some chaotic episode destroys the “old normal,” but too often simply looks like a way of keeping the powers intact that got us into a mess in the first place. In order to avoid ‘normal’ and ‘new’ and ‘new normal,’ I offer “Newmal.” 


Here’s how I define “Newmal”: The opportunity following a disruption to re-assess; to discover that some things we took for granted are quite precious and we need them; to realize that some things were simply what we did by momentum or inertia; to accept that a disruption can be devastating in so many ways and yet still hold some promise to re-focus on who we are called to be. As one can see in the word, there is acknowledgment of the “new,” but not with the arrogance that we have greater wisdom than our forebears. And the word acknowledges what we once thought of as “normal,” but not in a way that it grants the past unquestioned authority. The power of the “Newmal” is that it arises from the dynamic interplay of both the great things God has done and the new thing God is doing. 


My inspiration for the “Newmal” is the early church in Antioch. They were driven there by persecution in Jerusalem and a diaspora to places abroad. Yet, when they got there they found a golden opportunity to rethink what the church was, how it could look, and how it could operate. Perhaps it was less that they “thought” about as much as they simply found new doors ajar and pushed through them. Some folks started sharing the gospel with Gentiles and, hey, they welcomed it! Someone went and fetched a person who had been a nemesis but who had a change of heart and, hey, they got Paul as one of their teachers. Someone felt the need to help victims of a famine and, hey, they sent out the first missionaries with relief money. The book of Acts didn’t preserve the minutes of the Antiochene Strategic Planning Committee, but somehow or another they still managed to live into the opportunities that God opened up. 


So, now, we can do the same. When we find ourselves wanting to “get back to …” we should simply pause long enough to ask if that’s what God is calling us to now. To do so is not a criticism of what we did once upon a time, but an awareness that sometimes what was becomes a springboard for what can be. And when we find ourselves assuming that the new way is the only way, we should simply pause long enough to discern what the past was all about. To do so it not to say, “We’ve never done it that way before” but to listen for what God has done as an indicator of what God will do. 


Why be normal when we can be “Newmal”? 


Mark of St. Mark 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Church and Its Pentecost Effects

For the last several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the recent studies showing that many folks in the US do not consider themselves a part of any particular faith community. Some have left because they find the church to be too judgmental, too hypocritical, too liberal, too conservative, too boring, or too much of an imposition on their busy week, etc. What I suggested last week is the possibility that some folks feel as if they have “graduated” from church. That is to say, they may primarily see the church as a place where one goes to “become a better person.” And, since they more or less agree with the church’s ethical teaching, they are happy to go about living the kind of life without all of the trappings of religion. 


I think there is something to be said for that way of thinking. For example, if someone eschews a lucrative law career in order to be a public defender because they are convinced that everyone deserves equal representation in matters of justice, is that commitment not what the prophet calls us to do when he says, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly”? Do they need to believe in God to do “what God commands”? I have met persons who began attending progressive churches like St. Mark because they were part of the LGBTQIA community and needed to find a safe refuge from the church in which they grew up. Once they learned to accept themselves as beloved children of God, they left church because they felt like they had what they needed to move on. In truth, I think a non-religious person committed to justice is more christian (as an adjective) than someone whose religion is all about living their best life now and going to heaven when they die. Nonetheless, at the expense of sounding like a “company shill,” I want to push back against the idea that living a good or justice-oriented life makes the church irrelevant.

I believe the church is greater than the sum of its part. Being the church is more than learning the Bible, believing doctrines, formation as a “better person,” worshiping with others, doing one’s part, and participating in a community. Much like a body is fingers, toes, eyeballs, brains, organs, blood, etc., but the experience of living as an embodied person is far more than what those parts do, being the church involves all kinds of things, but is more than all of them put together. Here’s my favorite example, but I’m sure you can think of more. 


A three-year-old often categorizes adults in a church as either parenty or grandparenty and not much more besides. That child does not know the joy or pain of anyone’s life story and often not even their names. They just know that when they offer an answer to a question during Young Church or sing a song on Christmas Eve, everyone loves it. What they may not know is that those “old” people know their names, remember their birth, and hold them up in prayer often. Speaking as a former three-year-old, that experience of being welcomed, of people having real joy over the mere fact that one exists, shapes us far more deeply than we can ever know. This experience of being welcomed and loved by the church is how we first experience being welcomed and loved by God. The life-shaping of being loved – in a way that is eternal and not just contingent on our latest action – is as close to a miracle as anything we can name. This life-giving miracle is not the Bible Study, the programs, or any of the disparate parts of church life – it is the power that animates all of those parts of the church life. In this time of Pentecost, we call this power the Holy Spirit. If we only see the church as an institution, we might reach a place where we’re ready to “graduate” from it. But, if we see the church as a body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit, being the church is far than “what we get out of it” or even “what we contribute to it.”  


I invite you to join us in worship this weekend and let the Holy Spirit of Pentecost fill you with new life, new breath, new fire, and new ways of expressing the good news of the gospel. 


Mark of St. Mark 


Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Effects of the Church, Again

Last week I wrote about a radio commercial for Mother’s Day flowers, honoring a variety of ways that we are mothered or nurtured by others. I noted that the language of the commercial was similar to the kind of expansive language that many of us in the church have been trying to cultivate over the years with the language and direction of our liturgy. At the end of last week’s “Extra,” I mentioned that the commercial raises the question of the relationship between the church and the culture in which we are embedded. Does the flower commercial show that the church has been quite effective in all of our laborious cultivation of capacious language? I’m not suggesting that the church is the only institution that has been engaged in this cultivation, but it has indeed been a real goal of the church to expand the sense of what Mother’s Day means. Let me offer another example of how the church’s efforts have made a difference. 


In Thursday’s L.A. Times this week there is a marvelous article about “microfarms” that are being cultivated in the city. It is part of a trend among African American communities to combat the maldistribution of grocery stores among less affluent neighborhoods by replacing decorative grass yards with small community gardens. You can read the article itself here. At the center of the article is Jamiah Hargins, a winsome and inspiring proponent of microfarming, described at one point as having “the easygoing but determined disposition of a youth minister.” When asked about his commitment to setting aside 10% of his produce for needy families, Hargins said, “It’s a community tithe. That’s what I’ve been calling it. I guess it comes from my church days.” 


I can’t say for sure, but the reference, “from my church days,” seems to imply that Hargins no longer attends church. For the sake of this essay, let’s just assume that Hargins does not currently attend church. If that’s the case, Mr. Hargins would be numbered among those who are often called the “nones,” or “Spiritual, but not religious,” or the “dones” – all of which are ways of naming folks who have “left” the church. It means that he, and folks like him, are the ones to whom people point when they say that the church is “losing its relevance” or that the country is “no longer religious.” It’s what makes church proponents purse their lips and church critics nod their heads. But, let me ask this: Could it mean that Mr. Hargins has “graduated?” 


It’s not unheard of. The Apostle Paul referred to “the law” – the primary religious structure in his own religious upbringing – as a “tutor,” or a “disciplinarian,” which served a purpose for a time, but was never intended to be the permanent structure of faith. Is it possible that the church’s whole purpose is to “Christianize the social order” (a phrase from the Social Gospel prophet, Walter Rauschenbusch), and to make its own institutional structure irrelevant?  To be sure, the naïve optimism of the late 19th century about the extent to which the social order in the west had been “Christianized” was devasted by two world wars, a depression, and the technological threat of atomic weaponry. But, on a much smaller scale, would Mr. Hargins present us with someone whose religious training in church was quite successful and whose work in the world is, in fact, one way of seeing “the church,” even if he no longer “belongs to” or attends a church? 


I see the inherent danger in raising this question, especially as a pastor whose own “success” is often measured in how adroitly I am able to draw people to the church that I serve. But, ever since Jeremiah described the “new covenant” as one in which it would no longer be necessary for people like me to say, “Know the Lord!” because everyone would know the Lord, we pastors have always seen our best “success” lies in working our way out of a job. And perhaps that is true of the church also. 


On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that, even if the church’s role is to produce disciples like Mr. Hargins and send them out of the church doors into the community garden, the church itself would remain necessary. That’s the thread where I’ll pick up this topic next week. I think there is a better way than the either/or of church. 



Mark of St. Mark

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Mother's Day and the Effects of the Church

I heard a radio commercial the other day for flowers – as one often does when Mother’s Day approaches. Since Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday, it presents a challenge for churches that meet to worship on Sunday. (Father’s Day falls on Sundays also, but for some reason, there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of meaning ascribed to it. I blame all those years of dads receiving “soap-on-a-rope.”) The challenge for churches has two parts. Liturgically, Mother’s Day is not really a significant day on the church calendar – no more than May Day, Star Wars Day, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, or any of the other celebrations that happen in May. But, “Liturgy, schmiturgy,” say some people. It seems almost a blow to family values – to Eve, the mother of all living! – not to say something mother-wise during worship on Mother’s Day. So, the first challenge churches face is the gap between the cultural calendar and the liturgical calendar. 

The second challenge is that, in the Christian church, we feel compelled to think and speak expansively. We know that some women are not mothers, either by choice or circumstance. Some mothers struggle to mother well, leaving both the experience of mothering and the experience of being mothered as painful legacies, not something to celebrate with flowers. We know that some families have the adjectives “step,” “foster,” or “adopted” in them, which points to the complexities of the family system. We know that some mothers have lost children in some way, and some children have lost mothers. We know that some of our families have two dads or two moms, not the family structure of old sitcoms. The approach and language of worship has the task of naming the breadth of human experience, not just a two-dimensional version of it. And, more recently, matters of gender identity have even challenged our use of words like “brother, sister, father, mother” in worship, because there are folks who are gender neutral or transgender and the language we use might suggest a distinction between the ‘norm’ and the ‘exception.’ 

So, the groups with which I have planned worship over the years have sought to acknowledge the meaning that Mother’s Day does have for many people, without ‘normalizing’ the mothering experience in a way that excludes those for whom this can be a painful day of remembrance. To that end, we have spoken of “mothering” and “people who have provided nurture.” We have pointed to images of God’s hesed, the feminine Hebrew word often translated as “steadfast love.” Hesed could be translated “motherly love.” In other words, we have tried to expand “Mother’s Day” to something like “a celebration of family,” or “celebrating the nurturing people in our lives.” It doesn’t quite satisfy everybody, but there is a difference between aiming for liturgy and language that is appropriate and trying to make everyone happy.

So, I heard a radio commercial the other day for flowers – as one often does when Mother’s Day approaches. But, lo and behold, the language of the commercial sounded like it was lifted straight out of bulletins that I’ve worked on over the years for the Sundays of Mother’s Day. It mentioned “Mom,” but it also mentioned adoption, foster care, and “anyone who has nurtured us along the way.” It didn’t mention some of the more difficult aspects of mothering and childhood, but, after all, they had wares to sell not prayers to offer. Still, I was impressed that the language and focus of the commercial was far more inclusive than what one might have been expecting from a national chain capitalizing on one of its most profitable holidays.

The church has an annual challenge of acknowledging Mother’s Day while addressing its complexities and without practicing exclusion. Now a national flower commercial is acknowledging the same complexities of Mother’s Day that the church has been addressing for several decades. The whole phenomenon raises the issue of the relationship between the church and the culture in which we are embedded. I’ll pick up that topic in next week’s “Extra.” 

Until then, as the church empowered by the Spirit, may the hesed of God be with you, 

Mark of St. Mark

Sunday, May 2, 2021

What to Do about the Church’s Demise, Part 2

Today I will conclude an essay that I began last week with an overview of studies that portend the demise of the church.  

When pressed, my response to studies proclaiming the decline of religion in general or Christianity in particular, including the latest one, is “Meh.” I even shock myself at times with that response, so what follows is my attempt to understand how one can be as invested in the Christian church as I am and still not be moved by another declaration that it is on life support. Again, I will confine my remarks to the Christianity that I know and love.


One reason for the “Meh” is that much of what is being lost is not Christianity but Christendom. The original Christian community was a minority group willing to risk life, livelihood, and reputation to declare fealty to someone who had been branded a blasphemer and a seditious criminal. There are ongoing arguments of whether the situation of being outside of power and popularity is simply a matter of historical accident or whether that is, in fact, how the church is meant to be. When church and state become comfortable with each other, at times hardly distinguishable, does it come at too great a cost of the church’s theological integrity? If the church had strictly opposed slavery would there still be streets in the south with church buildings on every corner? If the church refused military service would the Senate or military still have chaplains? If the church provided healing and health to anyone in need or lent without expecting repayment, would we still be tax exempt, get housing allowance privileges, or PPP loans? Can there actually be a “Christian nation” if the church put the kinship of the Reign of God above national allegiance? If nothing else the demise of Christendom may offer the church a route toward renewing ourselves in a way more befitting followers of the crucified Christ. 


But that path would be unpopular, which means loss of members and revenue, which means failure, according to our capitalistic manner of thinking. It is true that, in the book of Acts, the church’s faithfulness often resulted in the exultant note that many people were added to the church. But, that manner of measuring faithfulness goes away after the first few chapters, when the stories of persecution, martyrdom, diaspora, and internal discord begins to take over. And Paul’s extraordinary mission journeys end with Paul’s journey to Rome, to be imprisoned, tried, and possibly martyred. The myth of “success” – inscribed deeply into the church’s psyche by the Church Growth Movement – comes at a huge cost. Perhaps the question is not whether people are rejecting the church but whether people have actually ever seen the church. 


I think a question for hand-wringers is whether they are grieving the loss of a Christianity that is inherently connected to Jesus Christ, or a commodified version of it.  


On the other hand, the church has never been perfect, the relationship between followers of Christ and citizenship in the state has always been problematic, and despite it all there is still some very powerful, viable witness taking place in Christian circles. One thing churches are doing – which many external critics fail to recognize – is some powerful soul-searching. I wish my cousin would realize that Bishop Spong has already raised all of his objections about theism and, frankly, more insightfully and pointedly than he does. I wish my neighbor wouldn’t read an Op Ed by Bart Ehrman and imagine that the church has never heard of biblical criticism. And I wish my activist friends knew the economic analyses of Leonardo Boff, the womanist theology of Katie Geneva Cannon, and the eschatology of Barbara Rossing before they assume that all of the church is represented by the mansplaining likes of Franklin Graham and Tim LaHaye. 


So, what do I make of the latest reports alleging “the godlessness of America”? I say “Meh,” if the question is whether I am concerned about the institutional predominance of the Christian church in America. I think a church that simply digs in and tries to preach the same thing “more harder” is ignoring real questions. But, a deeper response would go two ways. First, I feel repentant because the church has such a beautiful call to proclaim the joy and justice of the gospel as we live in the spirit of Christ. To a large extent, we have failed to do that very thing. But, second, I feel some hope, because a chastened church, a church that is open to honest questions and genuine criticisms – that’s a community that I’m all in on cultivating. Let’s have predominantly White churches doing serious audits of our history and complicity in White Supremacy – with an eye toward transformation. Let’s have a church interrogate our historic patriarchy, with more than just pointing at more female denominational leaders. Let’s have a church that values integrity over preserving convention. And let’s have a church that continues to reject the easy answers that we’ve often offered to complex questions, particularly if the point of the answer is to shame the one asking the question in the first place. None of these ideas is a prescription for church growth, but with this kind of energy, we would be the kind of community that we’re called to be.  


Mark of St. Mark



Wednesday, April 21, 2021

What to Do about the Church’s Demise, Part 1

This week I’m going to begin an essay that I will conclude next week. I’ll begin with an overview as Part 1 and move toward a response in Part 2: 

It seems like every few years a study emerges which, once again, proclaims that the death of religion is right around the next corner. News of faith’s imminent demise has likely been an ongoing phenomenon for centuries, and, to be sure, there is some truth in each instance. In my time of service to the Christian church, there have been a few such notable moments, each of which was met with some hand-wringing, some calls for “change or die,” and some “I told you so” comments. The March 29 publication of a Gallup Poll showing that more than half of adults in the US do not belong to a religious congregation is the latest of such studies, threatening to make Christian churches, along with Jewish synagogues and Islamist mosques, irrelevant soon, if not extinct eventually. 

I’ll let other faiths speak for themselves, but for the Christian church I think it is important to note that the anxiety of our demise is rooted in what we have wrongly defined as our “success.” Christians commonly assume that a movement that began with the death of a fairly unknown Galilean then expanded to a global religion is all the proof we need that God is alive. Embedded in this story is an unspoken arrogance that those places and peoples where Christianity has historically been most influential are the leading lights of education and civilization throughout the world. But, that “success” story only sharpens the question of the moment. If the global expanse of the church was proof that Christianity had been fueled by God, then what does the decline of the church signify? 

The historical confidence that the globalization of the church seemed to show from a historical perspective became prescriptive during the Church Growth movement. The stagnant to falling numbers in so-called “mainline” denominations and the rising numbers in so-called “evangelical” churches caused some panic and reaction at every level among historic, mainline churches. The word “evangelism” was conjoined with the phrase “church growth,” making it a matter of faithfulness for the church to increase its rolls and worship attendance. Mega-churches became the leading lights and their pastors became the role models, book sellers, and plenary presenters at workshops. The more liberal edges of theology were trimmed, not by conviction, but in order to “reach more people.” Bible studies avoided critical interpretation in order to focus on “application.” Behind all of these changes was the assumption that the downward trend of the mainline and the upward trend of evangelicals meant that the real sniff test of whether the church is being faithful can be demonstrated numerically. 

Then, there was “Sheilaism,” the term offered by Robert Bellah and his collaborators in their book Habits of the Heart. The term was based on a woman named Sheila who seemed to show an alarming trend that threatened Christianity. Sheila was Christian enough, but also Buddhist in some ways, a bit of Jewish here and there, mostly choosing her meal not from the menu but à la carte. That kind of non-traditional religion was a threat to established religious movements of all kinds, because the ultimate arbiter of religious truth and meaning was … Sheila. Some churches dug into tradition as the better source of truth; others expanded the menu to offer yoga classes with a Christian mantra. Whether digging in or opening up, the primary motive still seemed to be that unless the church is growing numerically something is amiss. 

Alas, on came the “Nones,” those who marked surveys claiming no religious affiliation at all. Often, the rationale would be that the church is both hypercritical and hypocritical. Scandal-free, inclusive-minded congregations took hope that their challenge was simply to show that they were not the kind of church that the “Nones” and company rejected. But, it turned out that the “Nones” were more or less “None and Done.” And, there was a changing point of view that really challenged the church’s presumed centrality, as the question shifted from “Why don’t you go to church?” to “Why do you go to church?” I once led a congregation through a series of question about their relationship with the church and, by far, the number one reason the faithful, church-attending, active folk gave for going to church was “the feeling of community.” After years of sermons warning against the church becoming a social club, who knew clubbing would be the church’s strong suit? The “Nones,” “Dones,” and “Whatevers” seem to have largely realized that a feeling of community can be found in many places. So, they left. And now they seem to outnumber the religious folks. And that’s were we’ll leave it for this week. Next week, I’ll offer a response.

Mark of St. Mark

Monday, March 8, 2021

A Verse A Day (Day 20)

 A Verse A Day 


In the 84th Psalm, the psalmist makes this arresting claim: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” 


You know, those tents of wickedness are pretty enticing. Perhaps it is the wickedness that one can imagine going on inside, debauchery dressed up as progressiveness, excess, profanely shedding the stiff clothing of conventionality behind the curtains. Perhaps it is the sheer luxury of those tents, baths of asses milk, silk from the east, abundant wine from the finest vineyards, rich sweetmeats, a table spread with fresh fruits and nuts, the best musicians offering songs of delight, elegant everything. Perhaps it is the status, the pride, the hubris of ownership, the “it” factor, the joy of knowing that anyone who is someone wants to be you, the influencer of all influencers. 


And then there’s the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper doesn’t actually live in the house. It might be a fearsome guardian, who would take off the head of anyone who might try to meander in uninvited or by stealth. It might be an old sleepy fixture who has to be awakened to greet people properly as they enter. Nothing about this person says “me.” The uniform belongs to the house, the house belongs to the owner, the smile the greeting are all part of the script, an act, lending an air of dignity, while playing into the theater of owners who are too entitled to open their own door themselves. How many doorkeepers secretly loathe the person who calls them by their first name but who is always called with the utmost measure of respect? 


The psalmist is ultimately saying, “I’d rather debase myself for the Lord than luxuriate for myself.” That sentiment can only make sense if the owner of the house is worthy beyond one’s own self-worth. That’s what I am holding today.